Argentina’s Abortion Legalization and the Future of the Green Wave in Latin America

By Abby Neiser

Content Warning: abortion, rape, abuse

In December 2020, after years of hard work by activists, Argentina joined Cuba, Uruguay, and Guyana as one of only four countries in Latin America in which elective abortion is legal (Olson, 2020).  Though reproductive rights have long been an essential issue to feminist movements around the world, this final push to change the law in Argentina was catalyzed by the Ni Una Menos (“not one woman less” in English) movement (Boas et. al, 2021).  Launched in 2015, this movement was a response to a slew of particularly horrific femicides, primarily of teenage girls (Boas et. al, 2021; Pomeraniec, 2015).  While activists in countries such as the United State have focused on abortion as a bodily autonomy issue, the Argentinian pro-choice movement has centered on the public health costs of not having access to safe abortion (Boas et. al, 2021).  These activists argued that criminalizing abortion does not prevent all abortions, only safe abortions, leading to preventable maternal deaths (Boas et. al, 2021).  This reasoning proved successful, and on December 30, 2020, access to safe and legal abortions was expanded (Boas et. al, 2021).  Argentina’s progressive social policies have caused a domino effect before in the region when in 2010, the country legalized same-sex marriage and several of its neighbors followed, raising the question of what impact their new abortion law could have on the rest of the region (Boas et. al, 2021).

Though Argentina offers a glimmer of hope, the regional landscape on this issue remains challenging.  Not only do very few countries allow elective abortion, but many countries also have extremely strict anti-abortion laws.  In El Salvador, for example, getting an abortion carries a punishment of up to forty years of prison time (Olson, 2020).  In Ecuador, abortion laws are so strict that even unintentional miscarriages may get a woman in trouble (Carpenter, 2019b).  Religion is one of the strongest reasons why abortion is such a polemical issue in Latin America.  A 2014 Pew Research Center survey showed that nearly 90% of Latin Americans identify as either Catholic or Protestant (Lipka, 2014).  This often means that, even on the political left, socially progressive positions rarely gain much traction, and when they do, they are often counteracted by an equally as strong conservative force (Carpenter, 2019a).  In short, Latin America presents a uniquely difficult environment for reproductive rights activists.

Brazil provides an example both of how challenging the issue of abortion can be in Latin America and the impact that Argentina’s new law has had on the region.  Currently, Brazil is governed by right-wing President Jair Bolsonaro, who is strongly supported by evangelicals, in no small part for his conservative views on issues such as abortion (Preissler Iglesias and Adghirni, 2020).  Since Bolsonaro has taken office, Brazilian conservatives have been emboldened and introduced over thirty bills intended to make the already restrictive laws even stricter (Associated Press, 2021).  As a result, Brazilian women have taken to traveling to nearby Argentina seeking abortions (Associated Press, 2021).  Organizations such as Miles for Women’s Lives help to fundraise and assist in taking women abroad for abortions (Associated Press, 2021).  The current composition of the government makes change unlikely in the near future, and Brazilian women are turning elsewhere for reproductive freedom.

Recent events, however, have put the grim status of abortion in Brazil on display.  In August 2020, a ten-year-old girl who had been raped repeatedly by her uncle discovered that she was pregnant (Starr, 2020).  Though Brazilian law theoretically would allow for her to get an abortion, she had to jump through a series of legal hurdles and travel extensively after the hospital she first visited refused to perform the procedure (Starr, 2020).  Even after a judge ruled that she could get an abortion, she was harassed by anti-abortion protestors to the point that she had to be sneaked into the hospital (Starr, 2020).  This incident caught the attention of human rights and feminist activists as a tragic example of why reproductive rights are so important.  Though abortion laws are unlikely to move under Bolsonaro, the desperation of many Brazilian women being highlighted bolsters the public health argument for legalizing abortion that led to success on the issue in Argentina and may eventually lead to a breakthrough.

Mexico, like Brazil, currently outlaws abortion in almost all circumstances.  Elective abortions are only permitted in the capital and the state of Oaxaca (Reuters Staff, 2021).  However, a recent survey shows that public opinion is shifting on the issue (Reuters Staff, 2021).  According to the survey, support for legalizing abortion increased from 29% to 48% over the short period between March 2020 and November 2020 (Reuters Staff, 2021).  Much of the action that ultimately led to the Argentinian law passing took place during that time, demonstrating just how big of an impact the change in Argentina may have on the rest of the region.  In response to the Argentinian law, Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who had previously declined to take a position on the issue, said that Mexican woman should determine the legal status of abortion in the country, though he did not elaborate on how this would happen or what the policy implications would be (Reuters Staff, 2020b).

Even with these improvements, however, Mexican activists still have a difficult path ahead of them to legalize abortion.  The dramatic increase in support for abortion is a promising sign for the future, but 48% support is not a majority.  Like other countries in Latin America, Mexico is still overwhelmingly Catholic.  Additionally, pro-choice protestors and police had a contentious encounter in September 2020 during which protestors threw Molotov cocktails at police and police used tear gas (Reuters Staff, 2020a).  The reproductive rights movement in Mexico appears to be strong and gaining traction, but they still will have to fight hard to get the majority of the people—and then the government—on their side.  Nonetheless, the momentum of Argentina legalizing abortion seems to be helping to accelerate this process.

A country that may benefit even more from the energy coming out of Argentina is its neighbor, Chile.  Abortion is only allowed in Chile currently under a select number of circumstances, but data suggests that access even under these circumstances is limited (Salomón and Alford, 2020).  However, shortly after Argentina’s law was passed, Chile opened up debates on its own elective abortion bill (News Wire, 2021).  Feminist activists have been demonstrating in the capital of Santiago, likely emboldened by the Argentinian law (News Wire, 2021).  Argentina’s success may be enough to push their Southern Cone neighbor over the edge, or at least closer to the goal post.

The conversations and actions sparked by Argentina’s legalization of abortion come during a particularly bleak time for women and girls in Latin America, with the pandemic worsening an already difficult situation.  The statistics are heartbreaking and sobering.  In Brazil, for example, four girls under the age of thirteen are raped every hour (Starr, 2020).  Every day, seven girls under the age of fourteen give birth in Ecuador (Casas, 2020).  During the pandemic, helplines for victims of domestic violence have seen a dramatic increase in calls in countries such as Chile and Mexico (Salomón and Alford, 2020).  Nearly half of the already small number of hospitals that provide abortions in Brazil have stopped offering the service because of COVID-19 (Starr, 2020).  Worldwide, the difficulty of procuring contraceptives during lockdowns will lead to an estimated seven million unintentional pregnancies, which could lead to a rise in unsafe, illegal abortions in places like Latin America with strict laws (Salomón and Alford, 2020).  Though these statistics are extremely difficult to hear and process, they underscore the need for urgent action on reproductive rights in Latin America and around the world.  Argentina must only be the first country, and elective abortion must only be the first issue addressed.  The countries of Latin America must work swiftly to remove the barriers and stigmas surrounding reproductive health, from ensuring easy access to contraceptives to proper sex education to tackling the widespread incidence of sexual assault throughout the region.  This will not be easy, and the challenges to solving these problems will look different for each nation, but it is necessary for protecting the human rights of half of the population.

Abby Neiser is a senior at the University of Pittsburgh majoring in Political Science and Spanish with a minor in Portuguese and a Certificate in Latin American Studies.  During the summer of 2019, she studied abroad in Cuba as part of the Pitt in Cuba program.  She is also the President of the Luso-Brazilian Student Association at Pitt.  Abby is primarily interested in Latin American politics, international relations, social movements, and the intersection between politics and artistic expression.  Upon graduating, she plans to pursue a career in public service or international relations.



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